Roleplaying Resources

The Secret Railroad

by the DM, 2017-12-05

Railroading is when the GM forces players down a specific path. No matter how hard they try, they have to continue riding that train. In its worst form, this is the GM saying, “No, you can't do that.”

Player: “I climb up the side of the tower.”

GM: “That doesn't work.”

Player: “Why not?”

GM: “It just doesn't. You have to use the door.”

The GM can be a little more subtle while still being just as problematic.

Player: “I climb up the side of the tower.”

GM: “The wall is too slippery.”

Player: “I have pitons and a hammer. I make some handholds and climb up.”

GM: “After the first few feet, the tower is made of adamantite, which your pitons can't piece.”

Player: “Ok. I magically enlarge myself, sling my belt around the tower, and shimmy up.”

GM: “A spinner razor blade comes out of the tower and cuts your belt.”

Player: “Fine. I'll go through the door.”

Railroading makes the game less fun for players, because they feel like nothing they do matters; you're going to tell your story whether they're part of it or not. One solution is simply to stop. Let the players drive the story. This can be fun if you're a really good improvisor, but what if you're not? Or what if you just really want to tell your story? Here's where the Secret Railroad comes in.

The players pass a Mysterious Cave on the way to town, but they decide not to go in. While in town, they learn more about the cave and the amazing treasure that's said to be inside, if they can get past the dangers. They'd still rather not.

At this point, you could just go out of character and say, “look, I really don't have anything planned other than this cave. Could you just humor me this once, and I'll try to be more flexible in the future?”

Another option is to forget about the cave for now. Let them go on a different adventure. Later on in your story, they have to enter the Haunted Castle! And due to an amazing coincidence that only you notice, the Haunted Castle has the exact same layout, dangers and treasures as the Mysterious Cave. How about that?

Or you really need the PCs to talk to the Mayor, so they can get a key piece of information, but for some reason, they kill the Mayor instead and become outlaws. Soon, they find themselves allied with the Bandit King, who – wouldn't you know it – happens to have that key piece of information they needed.

The Secret Railroad is a great way to avoid wasting preparation. You spent a lot of time on that adventure; you don't just want to throw it away. But be careful. Do this enough times, and your players will catch on. There are other approaches which may serve you better. For example:

  • Make it personal. Above the entrance to the Mysterious Cave is a mostly faded insignia. After cleaning it off, the player realizes it's the symbol of his own family!
  • Make it relevant. Rumor has it that the Mysterious Cave is the hideout of the bandits the players met two adventures ago.
  • Make it urgent. If you don't find the Secret Magic Scroll today, the sun will set forever! Could it be in the Mysterious Cave?
  • Just to have the adventure be so interesting that they can't resist!